Typical Figure, British Library

Typical Figure, British Library

Last month, the British Library released more than one million images from 17th, 18th, and 19th century books to Flickr commons. They would like the images to circulate widely–and, to this end, have invited the public to “use, remix, and repurpose” them–but they have also invited the public into a kind of collaborative preservative-historiographic relationship. It seems that the library does not know a whole lot about the images that they have scanned. From the press release:

We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’. The images were plucked from the pages as part of the ‘Mechanical Curator’, a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image’s associated description.

We may know which book, volume and page an image was drawn from, but we know nothing about a given image.


We plan to launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year, to help describe what the images portray. Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content. The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

I am interested to see what comes of this project. Not only has the BL detached its images from the physical page in the hopes that they will be identified in virtual space, but it also plans to reroute the efforts of the crowd (whatever those might be) back into the “automated classifiers,” a gesture intended (it would seem) to discipline the excesses of interactivity, make the multitudes more useful, mechanical, efficient, etc.

I wonder, though, whether a project such as this, one that aims to produce histories for more than one million images, might (finally) make other forms of historicity visible. What if the “million first steps” that it claims to have taken each lead in a different direction? Or nowhere at all? What if the crowd attaches a million words to each image? Or remains silent? What if it babbles, stutters, or splinters into a maze of contradictions?

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